When I first came home from serving a very long prison sentence, my greatest concern was how deeply that dreary place affected me mentally. Of course, I thought I was normal, but I was uncertain because of the toll I had witnessed the cruel environment take on so many men.
I have reached the conclusion, based on my 15-year imprisonment from age 20 to 35, that many incarcerated persons develop mental illness because of the subhuman conditions they are held captive in.
By now many of us know the numbers and have read statistic after statistic that attempt to explain how mental illness runs rampant throughout U.S. prisons. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 64 percent of local jail inmates, 56 percent of state prisoners and 45 percent of federal prisoners have symptoms of serious mental illnesses. In 2015 The Atlantic reported 55 percent of male inmates in state prisons are mentally ill, and the numbers goes on and on.
What’s always interesting to me is that most people assume that the men and women in prison who are mentally ill arrived there with some form of pre-existing mental condition, attributing these numbers to inadequate health care and disgraceful treatment of those with mental illness. While that may be true in some cases, what most people on the outside don’t understand is how the dismal, subhuman prison environment can literally drive you crazy. The inhumane conditions are intentionally designed to sedate the mind, dull the senses and pacify prisoners into a comatose state.
One of the damnedest challenges surviving prison as a whole person is the relentless battle to maintain your sanity in a cold, grey concrete and steel sensory deprivation chamber. A chamber filled with people who could not care less if you lived or died: people convicted of being thieves, rapists, killers, white supremacists, black nationalists, child molesters, pimps, meth-heads, crackheads, dope fiends, prostitutes, scheming and conniving con men and a wild, lawless, heartless, fatherless, desensitized, lost generation of young men.
These dungeons, labeled “correctional facilities,” are supposed to “rehabilitate” convicted persons and prepare them to return to society. They are designed to break you. How, under these extreme circumstances, do we expect a person to maintain their sanity? If we dull an incarcerated person’s senses in order to control the situation, how on earth can we expect anyone to come out whole?
And then there’s segregation: a prison within a prison. It is its own monster, and the intense isolation can drive a person to the brink of their sanity. I was once forced to spend 30 days in an isolation chamber in segregation in a maximum-security prison. It was sealed with a steel door so heavy it trapped the air inside and was so soundproof that I might as well have been deaf. When the 30 days ended and the prison guards opened my isolation chamber, the stale, dank air that rushed into my cell from the gallery was so refreshing that the breeze smelling like paint and steel had the audacity to be caressing. All sounds, smells and light hit me at the same time, giving me a sensory overload so strong it made me dizzy and nauseated.
This is not rehabilitation. This is torture. And this subhuman treatment is happening in prisons across the United States. How much of this inhumane treatment can a sane person take before it begins to affect him mentally and emotionally?
Truthfully, because of how intricately prisons are designed for sensory deprivation, I believe that the very environment itself causes great depression that leads to other mental issues. There is much talk and a movement toward reform, but how can an institution designed for punishment be reformed when its entire infrastructure is intended to depress the mind and dull the senses?
If our goal as a decent society is to rehabilitate, then we must oblige our elected officials to abandon lazy, twisted and medieval imprisonment practices. They must be urged to review the humane 21st-century ideas that greatly reduce the number of people with mental illness the physical prison environment produces.
Having paid their debt to society, people, many of whom are family members, are reentering our communities needing a real opportunity to be productive. However, they tremendously struggle to do so because their mental faculties have been intentionally aggravated by being forced to survive in a high-stress, abnormal world devoid of human sensitivity. Prisons, as they currently exist, must be abolished.
Omar Yamini is the executive director of Determined to Be Upright, a nonprofit that helps youth identify and deflect harmful influences. His book is “What’s Wrong With You! What You, Your Children and Our Students Need to Know About: My 15 Year Imprisonment from Age 20-35.”